On the night Christ was born, a group of humble shepherds were blessed with a visitation from a heavenly messenger announcing the glorious news. What were they feeling as they experienced this miracle? Joy? Reverence? Awe?
No. The Bible reports that they were “sore afraid.”
I once gave a gift to someone who opened the present, frowned at it and set it aside. Her reaction clearly was not personal; she repeated it with every gift and every gift-giver. But it was demoralizing nonetheless to witness a response that was so far off from the delight I had expected.
As an activist, I frequently witness similarly disappointing reactions when a policy change I have worked for finally comes to fruition. While I expect supporters to be excited, relieved or grateful, they are just as likely to express anger that the previous policy ever existed in the first place, that it took so long to change or that the change wasn’t big enough. The outpouring of negativity in the wake of good news can be more demoralizing than seeing a gift set aside by an unthankful recipient. I worry about strategy; how will we get policymakers to do what we want when we behave this way when they do? And more personally, why doesn’t anyone appreciate our efforts to make this happen?
During the Christmas season, I often feel the peace, love and joy expressed by Christmas cards. But amidst the work and expense required by the festivities, I can feel tired, worried, or grumpy. In a vicious cycle, I compound the negativity when I berate myself for having the “wrong” feelings.
There is nothing strategic about feelings, and by definition, a gift freely given demands nothing in return, not even a smile or a “Thank you.” Sometimes the greatest gift we can give is to honor others’ feelings, letting them sit with their feelings without our judgment, even if what they emote makes us uncomfortable. We can practice this kind of empathy with ourselves, allowing ourselves to be human and feel the way we feel.
May this holiday season bring peace, love and joy; and if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too.